“Be careful with that one,” a low, throaty voice warned. “If you wake it up, it has a tendency to bite.”
Gwin hurriedly replaced the jar she had lifted down from a shelf, half full with the leaves of a furry kind of nettle. Nestled on top and curled so tightly she could not see where it ended or began was a long brown worm, the tiny hairs on its back glowing a soft green. The creature shifted and turned against the leaves as Gwin pushed the jar back onto the shelf and carefully backed away.
“It is secured within the jar, is it not?” she asked, talking into the stale air of the shop as she was yet to set eyes on the proprietor.
“Why take the chance?” the voice replied.
Gwin tried to find the voice’s owner. The shop was sparsely lit and even though it was midday, two pairs of thick velvet curtains the colour of bruised plums blocked much of the sunlight. Only one shaft of light peeked through, a long finger of gold that glanced through the shop, highlighting soft drifts of slowly falling dust.
Many jars jostled for space on the shelves in front of Gwin. They were filled with things that shook and shivered, things that were almost certainly alive. Further into the narrow space, books lined the walls and tables covered with scrolls, maps, ink stains and candle wax were scattered across haphazardly laid rugs.
At the very back of the shop, a pale statue of the goddess Thetia gleamed amid the gloom. Her snarling face was tilted towards the sky and a rearing snake coiled tightly about her hands.
“It’s rare to find a statue of Thetia these days,” the voice said, sounding as if it was getting closer. “Especially one in such perfect condition. You don’t seem local, Mrs. I suppose you think the goddess fierce and horrifying to look upon.”
“On the contrary,” Gwin replied, turning towards the voice and flaring with frustration when its owner still failed to materialise. “Thetia is certainly fierce but she is also maternal. She is usually depicted showing anger towards those who would hurt her people.”
“Not bad for an out-of-towner; you have our goddess pegged right.”
A keuhog suddenly ran across the floor, narrowly skirting the hem of Gwin’s cloak and startling her further. It was a short-legged, hairless dog-like creature with a long, flexible snout and flapping ears that stood straight up from its head. Their meat was riddled with parasites that could not be boiled out and their hides were too small to make decent leather with. Instead, they were left to spread as vermin across the city and were especially prevalent in the Bard’s Quarter. This one seemed to live in the shop. Gwin watched it slow to a trot and approach a saucer of something dark green and frothing on the floor beside the glowering statue of Thetia. When it bent its head to drink, she saw it wore a string of small painted beads around its neck.
“Don’t mind Petey,” the voice said. “He’s just hungry.”
Gwin moved further into the shop. She stopped before a long counter beneath which were more shelves crammed with vials of liquid, pouches of carefully labelled herbs and shallow bowls of polished stones and shells. On the wall behind it was a large tapestry, embroidered with intertwining trees edged in gold, their leaves full of staring eyes. Gwin felt quite sure if she was to brush against it, dust would erupt from the long-neglected fibres.
A sudden movement caught her eye and Gwin looked up to finally see the shopkeeper. He was descending a flight of crooked stairs leading to a small balcony hanging over half the ceiling. With a jolt she tried very hard to conceal, Gwin realised the man was a hobgoblin, a race her people had long believed to have vanished into time. He wore a burlap tunic that fell to his knees and a long pointed cap, set so far back on the thinning wisps of his snow-white hair it seemed in danger of falling off completely. As he made his way down the inelegant staircase, his roughly carved clogs clonked against the smooth wood. He reached the bottom and approached her, a welcoming smile on his broad, wizened face. When he drew closer, Gwin could see the front of his hair was grey with soot and his eyebrows were singed.
“Welcome to The Eternal Library of Thetia,” he said. “Home of the finest books, wards and curiosities. My name is Gulpe. How may I serve you today?”
“Good afternoon, Gulpe,” Gwin returned. Her voice trailed away when she looked down at the heavy gloves the hobgoblin was wearing, so long they reached his elbows. He removed them with an agitated grunt. Gwin glanced at the balcony above them. It was groaning with yet more piles of books, barrels, boxes and a long oak table from which she could just make out a thin column of diminishing smoke winding up from an ornate copper bowl.
“There’s nothing up there for you, Mrs,” Gulpe said. His face was still wrinkled in a kindly smile honed over long years of keeping shop, but his tone was blunt. “Now, what can we do for you, I wonder?” he continued before Gwin had time to react. “Perhaps a charm of some kind? Or some freshly ground pennyroyal?” When Gwin failed to reply he shook his head. “No, I can tell you’re here for something else. Something special, I think.”
Gulpe walked to the counter and bent to rifle through the bowls and boxes displayed beneath it. After much grumbling and one hushed swear word, he finally rose with a triumphant look on his face, two small, gold objects glittering in the palm of his hand. Gwin found herself craning forward to see what they were, despite the fact she had no intention of purchasing anything.
“These are rare as hen’s teeth,” Gulpe said. “Coincidentally, I do have a couple of hen’s teeth knocking about if that’s what you’re in the market for. An excellent cure for constipation when steeped in a tea, or so I’m told.” He held the objects in his hand aloft and Gwin saw it was a pair of simple earrings, spinning spirals that sparkled in the half-light. “The Shining Earrings of Solania,” Gulpe announced, a note of reverence in his voice. “When worn, you gain the ability to hear whatever someone might be saying about you, be they in the next room or on the next continent. These come with a warning, of course. Prolonged use can severely damage your lugholes.”
“They can make you deaf?” Gwin asked.
“No, they can burn a hole right through your earlobes. Most painful, not to mention disfiguring. It’s especially risky if many people are talking about you at once.”
“Why would anyone take such a chance?”
“Well Mrs, I suppose that entirely depends on a person’s particular level of paranoia.”
Gulpe waited expectantly, no doubt hoping that Gwin’s level of paranoia was high enough to make her reach for her coin purse. She wondered how she had allowed the shopkeeper to steer her so far off track.
“Truthfully, I’m not here to buy anything,” she admitted.
The polite smile fell from Gulpe’s face. “Then why are you here, Mrs?”
“I’ve taken a room at The Dancing Crayfish Inn.”
“That’s nice for you,” Gulpe snapped. “You should think about placing an announcement on the noticeboard in Midnight Square.”
“No,” Gwin said, heat rising in her cheeks, “if you will kindly allow me to finish, I was about to say that the landlady, Mrs Barbour, suggested I come and talk to you.”
“Well, I have business with the changeling community and Mrs Barbour said you are a great friend to them.”
Gulpe’s face darkened and his already crumpled forehead creased further until his eyes became darting pinpricks. Gwin drew back, taking a half-step towards the door. “I am a great friend to the changelings,” he said. “But what are you, Mrs? Friend or foe?”
“I am not sure I understand,” Gwin said. “I fear you mistake me, I am certainly no foe.”
“Really? Would a friend arrive in town amid a blaze of theatrics, intending to enlist all those with changeling blood into a fool’s army? An army created to fight for the bloody Asrai, no less. The very same people who left the changelings here to rot in the first place. Now you tell me, does that sound very friendly to you?”
Gwin stared at Gulpe, completely at a loss for words. In an inside pocket of her cloak, she felt the leafling stir and stretch, the cold shock emanating from her disturbing the tiny creature’s sleep. Gwin patted her absentmindedly as her mind raced, desperately trying to make sense of what was happening. “You have known who I am this entire time,” she finally managed.
Gulpe simply nodded, his expression hard and grim.
“Why did you keep up such a pretence?” Gwin demanded. Her initial shock was slowly fading and in its place, a small, bright anger flickered into life. This wretched hobgoblin had been toying with her.
“I was trying to get a feel for you.”
“And? What did you decide?” Gwin felt the leafling flutter once more against her chest and she willed herself to be calm, fearful of what else she may awaken.
“I decided you are sincere. Mostly harmless, if a little fool-headed.” Gwin bristled once more at this, but she let him continue. “I also decided there are those amongst the changelings who would tan my hide if they heard I’d made the first Asrai to set foot this side of Nymed in a thousand years turn tail and leave. They deserve to hear you say your piece, then they can make up their own minds.”
Gwin was greatly relieved to hear that not all the changelings harboured such anger for the Asrai, but she was careful not to let Gulpe see it.
“Come on then,” he said, straightening the cap on his head and heading towards the door.
“You mean for me to meet with the changelings right now?” Gwin watched him open the door and step outside, but her own feet remained rooted to the floor. She had not anticipated matters would progress so quickly and she little trusted the prickly shopkeeper. She half-expected him to trick her into some kind of trap.
“Well, they are waiting for you after all,” Gulpe replied. “Best get this over with.”
Taking a deep breath and briefly touching the sleeping eye pendant hanging at her throat, Gwin wrapped her cloak more tightly about herself and followed Gulpe out onto the street.
Before closing the door behind them, Gulpe paused to call into the dark of the shop, “Petey, you’re in charge. Don’t let no rough-types in.”
Gwin was convinced she heard the shuffling keuhog grunt in reply but she had no time to ask Gulpe about it, he was already making his way up Midnight Lane without even a cursory backwards glance to see if she was following.
Potion Bottles photograph by Linda Parry